Book Expo is a massive event. The floor is crowded with publishers hawking their wares. There’s acres and acres of books. It’s quite an operation really. But whether intentionally or by design, the folks behind the Expo are making it pretty tough to cover this event, especially if you’re a blogger. As Sarah and Ed have mentioned, there is almost no Internet access. Supposedly you can pay $5 an hour for wireless access, or the incredible price of $50 for the day. Everyone is subject to this charge, even those who have press passes. There is a press room (which is where I am right now), but there’s no wireless access there either. Instead there’s three computers with signs posted above them that say “Please limit your time to 15 minutes when others are waiting.” It makes it hard to blog, is all.
[caption id="attachment_77156" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Author Elliott Holt reads from a first edition at Brazenhead Books.[/caption] In New York City during late May of 2015, the Rangers professional hockey squad fell just short of the finals, while the Yankees and Mets approached the halfway marker of their seasons clinging to competitive success on the baseball diamond. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s stage adaptation of the Jack Black flick School of Rock appeared primed to draw flocks of the musical-hungry, and word-of-mouth for summer blockbuster Mad Max spread with zest. Mayor Bill de Blasio may have given up on his quest to ban horse rides from Central Park although, then again, maybe he had not. Gun violence, The New York Times acknowledged, had risen without nearing grim levels of an era gone by. Construction proceeded apace on that Department of Corrections-looking astral tower with apartments for the very rich off the southeastern edge of Central Park. Many of us readied for summer escapades. The number of beachgoers at Jacob Riis Park rose again. One World Trade Center recently had opened. New books debuted each and every Tuesday. There were apps for practically everything. Meanwhile, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, something singular was about to blink out of existence. Although, let it be said, something singular always is about to blink out of existence if you put any stock in venerable city lore: it’s what makes New York New York. Yet Brazenhead Books, some of us want to believe, is the kind of destination New Yorker writer of yore Joseph Mitchell would have commemorated, which is to say, one rooted in the past, a pocket of anomalous culture. The stroke of genius, Michael Seidenberg, host and proprietor of Brazenhead, will tell you in choosing several years ago to run a speakeasy from his one-time residence, rests in how everyone comes to him. All the book people, anyway. And some aren’t even book people. They just love the vibe. “I guess for me the social aspect is the main draw -- Michael is a gem, the sort of old-school all-around literary guy I haven't encountered since my early days in NYC in the '90s, when it already felt like that great old era was ending. It feels like my ideal party. Like many -- most, I'd guess -- I immediately felt at home,” says novelist Porochista Khakpour. She only recently visited for the first time. Rachel Rosenfelt, creative director for Verso Books and founder and publisher of The New Inquiry, has visited countless times. She offers a quotation from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to describe Brazenhead’s draw: For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to those Bohemias, halfway between the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented may be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world. It’s a place that can be mistaken for no other, Seidenberg’s bookstore. Even if that’s really the wrong word. Book-temple kind of gets it while sounding a notch too reverent and as if the environs offered way more space than they do. “That small and sacralized space” is how novelist Scott Cheshire refers to the apartment. “My wife calls it the place where time disappears.” Book-hovel conveys the winding and wending of the corridors through which visitors must pass, along with the no-fuss atmosphere, while failing to get across the distinct sense of wonder. Writer and New York City native Tara Isabella Burton notes “the anarchic spirit” of the place, “which is like every ‘let’s make a pillow fort’ sense of childish wonder meets ‘Beauty and the Beast’ library sense of awe.” Drinks are perpetually at hand. Between each visit, the books somehow rearrange themselves on the shelves. A title called The Dreams (Naguib Mahfouz) faces outward alongside Arabesques (Anton Shammas). A Newsweek featuring Patty Hearst in black-and-white resides alongside a back-cover emblazoned with Mentors, Muses & Monsters. As when reading a series of diversely authored poems, the mental reflex is to draw evocative links between each one. The titles seem to whisper in cahoots. At Brazenhead, there is no guest list. Maybe an invite or two. The rest of the picture fills in by chance. “It’s a secret club that welcomes all,” says musician Adam Kautz. Every Thursday, every Saturday, apparently since the dawn of time. At least the 19th century? “This place has something of Old Russia about it,” one visitor observed several months ago. “Unlike most literary parties -- which result in a few business cards exchanged, awkward conversations with unimpressive people with impressive bylines, my first night at Brazenhead produced an actual and ongoing relationship to a place and the people in it,” reflects critic Michael Thomsen. “You really have to fight to maintain any real sense of reliable intellectual fellowship, so to have it provided for you in a super-fucking-cute apartment in Manhattan, whiskey and all, is such a rare gift,” offers fiction writer and recent New York City-arrival Keenan Walsh. “Brazenhead is a living room in a city where nobody has space for a living room. It’s a community—where the books are both incidental and yet vital,” says Burton. Who makes up the crowd? Students introduced to the book-haven by their adjunct professors; filmmakers, musicians, actors, and museum workers of most every stripe; psychologists; history buffs; childhood friends of Seidenberg’s; friends of those who have visited before; travelers from Ireland, from Italy, from Spain, from Russia, from Israel, from Lebanon, many of whom read about Brazenhead in a national paper and have arrived from distant lands; magazine editors, book editors, agents, and their assistants who, for the night at least, cease being assistants; book store employees, that endangered breed; and writers, many writers. The categories of visitor, by the way, are not mutually exclusive. During an early visit, I found myself in conversation with a smoky-voiced fellow over by the silver-lidded ice bowl. He told me about a 10-hour movie by a French New Wave director, a copy of which he owns. Later that night, young poet, Seidenberg’s right hand, and founder of Brazenhead’s well-attended weekly poetry readings Simona Blat pointed at one of the surrounding bookshelves. The Factory of Facts Luc Sante. The guy had just walked out the door. “That’s him,” she said. Unassuming is the word, incognito the vibe, at Brazenhead. “A book shop,” writes Anatole Broyard in his treasured memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, “should have an almost ecclesiastical atmosphere. There should be an odor, or redolence of snuffed candles, dryness, desuetude -- even contrition.” Minus most of the contrition, that description fits the bill. Tobacco smoke spices the air and friendly quantities of marijuana were legalized at Brazenhead at least a few years before the city of New York saw fit to follow suit. The outside world feels somehow suspended under Michael Seidenberg’s roof. Although, it’s true, legality isn’t exactly his raison d’etre, if, in fact, it’s anyone’s. Bob Dylan, The Stones, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen are familiars to the stereo system, which is known to have trouble with certain discs. Left to sort itself out, the stereo seems to invent a new form of techno with skipping fragments of “Visions of Johanna,” “Ruby Tuesday,” or whatever else is playing at the moment. Also frequently heard are the tunes of Sixto Rodriguez, a.k.a. Sugarman. These discs, newer to the collection, flow without a catch. Then there’s radio. “I think it’s best when CBS 101.1 is on,” says Kautz. Seidenberg has held the apartment on 84th Street for 37 years, mostly as his place of residence. In a past life, puppeteering was his primary pursuit. Williamsburg-born, he opened his first bookstore location, which doubled as a base of puppetry operations, in today’s Cobble Hill. This was back when a storefront there went for a song and a dance, both of which Seidenberg could provide with puppets (and the moving company he used to run). Brooklyn now has achieved the quality of myth in his mind; cross the river east and he might dissolve under a sorceress’s spell. Brooklyn was what he aspired so mightily for so long to get out of -- why ever go back? That, anyway, is his line. He means it too. For several years, Brazenhead Books was a basement-level shop on the Upper East Side’s 84th Street. It never exactly did booming business. Regulars included the likes of pioneer Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson (back in Duluth, Minn., Bobby Zimmerman pirated records from his collection) along with visits from illustrator Jeff Wong, journalist Nik Cohn, film critic Richard Brody, poet Aram Saroyan, and novelist Donald Antrim. Then the '90s ended. Maintaining the store as rent costs frothed over became fiscally daunting. It was a shame, really, since Seidenberg lived on the same block, a second floor apartment a few buildings away. Tough to beat that commute. He transported his collection to the apartment and he and his wife, Nickita (“Nikki”), relocated within the neighborhood. For a few years, limbo. On occasion he appeared in a pop-up stall along Central Park’s cobbled eastern border. Maybe you spoke with him there? Then, inspiration: a close Seidenberg compatriot and art-restorer named George Bisacca along with former Brazenhead assistant Jonathan Lethem (of the Cobble Hill days) helped bring the latest and most unlikely incarnation into existence. It would be a speakeasy from the second-floor apartment, or most of the apartment. A belly-high shelf doubled as a countertop for the store and tripled as a bar immediately beyond the entry vestibule. Seidenberg would locate himself there and, if the day was slow, read the latest fiction to curry his interest. "He does not have an incurious bone in his body,” says Cheshire. In addition to recent publications by the younger set, including Cheshire, Khakpour, David Burr Gerrard, and Elliott Holt, well-represented at Brazenhead are house favorites Jerome Charyn, Thomas Berger, Muriel Spark, and Philip Roth. “You don’t need 18 miles of books with a man like Michael curating,” says Tyler Malone, editor-and-chief of lit mag The Scofield. Bob Dylan peers from multiple posters on the walls. A Roger Sterling-looking Joe DiMaggio declares from a 1980s poster-sized ad above the coatrack, "This city wasn’t built by frightened people." On the shelves running to the ceiling behind Seidenberg’s counter, a strip from a larger painting dangles via a single tack. It features a series of brightly colored abstract shapes, some shadows, and, right at eye level, a bared breast. Just, you know, a conversation piece. Every window is covered, courtesy of interior design firm Whimsy, Flair & Throwback. Lethem told a few friends about the place and those friends told a few more friends. Patricia Marx showed up for a Talk of the Town piece, noting among other key features the proprietor’s old Brooklyn accent and signature missing teeth (only one readily visible, an upper right incisor). Seidenberg coordinated with visitors via telephone and, “Whoa!” the cutting edge, a social network. For a few years in the late aughts, The New Inquiry made it a headquarters for festivities, hosting frequent readings. “Brazenhead gave me the space in New York City to grow up,” says Rosenfelt. “So few spaces allow that. I found out what I was doing, why I was doing it, what I cared about, and what, if The New Inquiry was going to be a thing, I'd like to have it be.” From his position at the front of the store, Seidenberg will speak of the New York he knew growing up and what changes the decades have wrought; of his mother and father; of the family dentist to whom he loyally returned for decades as the elder gentleman would remind Seidenberg of his parents; of his wife, Nikki, her years as circulation manager and “emotional lynchpin” for Rolling Stone magazine; of their three-legged pit-bull, Ava, and American terrier, Rosie; of Roy Lavitt, childhood friend, overseas thespian, and head of Brazenhead’s marketing department (i.e. he has drawn cartoons adverting the shop for each incarnation); favorite movies, particularly those starring Burt Reynolds; of the 1980s, a time when so many in the city momentarily lost their way; of culinary achievement (e.g. “Food is something we got right. There are some good snacks...I don’t want to live in a world without snacks. It’s not a Julie Andrews thing, I just like snacks.”); of any writer you care to mention; of various terms ending in ‘-archy’ (e.g. “You can’t fill your beer can with someone else’s whiskey and call it anarchy!”); of how to elicit quick laughter as a puppeteer (trade secret: have the puppets hit each other); of pockets (e.g. “I feel like humans have too many pockets. Half the time I lose things, they’re in my pockets.”); of his adventures as someone licensed to conduct marriages in New York State (i.e. he recently married two writers in a ceremony held on the Brazenhead premises). And that, honestly, is only the tip of the conversational iceberg. Rosenfelt provides an apt anecdote: Once, I gave a talk to employees and executives of a Chinese publishing house for Pratt University. They didn't speak English, so I had a translator with me. I described the importance of informal space and used Brazenhead as an example. After the talk, they approached me to ask if they could visit, which of course I was happy to facilitate. That visit was a true delight for both me and Michael -- the space was so special, so essentially New York -- they all seemed to light up and told me through their translator that it reminded them why they cared about books. One of them bought Walt Whitman and asked Michael to sign it, as though he was the author. We laughed about it, but I thought that it made cosmic sense. Michael is large, he contains multitudes. Henry Miller and John Cooper Powys, fixtures of 1920s Greenwich Village, look out in black and white portrait from above a glass-fronted bookcase. Wander from room to room and you will find sections for Art, the Russians, the Japanese, the French, the Spanish, the otherwise translated, the rock 'n' rollers, the noir, the erotica, the memoir, The New Yorker writers, the paperback fiction, the poets, the '60s, the movie-related, the collected letters, the sci-fi, the thrillers, and, all the way in back, replete with cushioned bench for intimate conversation, the first-edition room. “The best things you stumble across aren’t for sale,” observes editor and critic Brian Gresko, “but are part of Michael’s personal history, or the cultural history of New York City, or, as is often the case, both.” It was never going to last forever. That, for better and worse, has always been the imminent truth of Brazenhead Books. Scan any of the retro cover designs, titles long out of print, lurid paperback editions, and those that maybe never should have been published to begin with: marooned and made singular by the passage of time, the attrition of their mass-produced peers -- curiosities now, corners curled, paper yellowed. Remarkable objects. In effect, the book trove is like a search engine you can stand inside of. Not such an efficient one, sure, but way more pleasurable probably for that very reason. Word of eviction came down in the fall. Apparently, it is not legal to operate a commercial establishment from a residential apartment. Following a bout of legal intrigue, final word arrived, an end date, the last hurrah: July 4th, 2015. As a contributor to The New Inquiry, Seidenberg regularly filed a column called “Unsolicited Advice for Living in the End Times.” “I’ve accepted the end times,” he says. “Not, like, in a Biblical way. I just did the math.” He may start writing the column again soon under his own banner. Perhaps it was the tuberculosis speaking, but Franz Kafka also was a writer who had accepted the end times, or at least made a literary ritual of performing with crushing comedic involution the fate in store for the hopeful and bright eyed, his irony as wide across as a blue whale’s jawbone. In the story, “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” Kafka writes from the perspective of a traveler named Eduard Raban, a young man on leave from his office job: “Just recently I read in a prospectus a quotation from some writer or other. ‘A good book is the best friend there is,’ and that’s really true, it is so, a good book is the best friend there is.” And that sentiment, Kafka’s Kafkaesque-ness notwithstanding, is where Seidenberg and Brazenhead Books figure on the involving literary tapestry of New York City history. (And the place of books in late capitalism -- the latter phrase included here in honor of The New Inquiry.) He fostered a place for writers and friends and friends who are writers, and maintained it in its current form, commercial vicissitudes be damned, for almost a decade. So if you happen to glimpse a few more writers than usual looking disconsolate at the new rooftop bar of your local supermarket or feeding pigeons along the cobbled borders of Central Park, you will know why. “Excluded middles,” muses will-executor Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 are “bad shit, to be avoided.” Brazenhead Books worked such avoidance pretty deftly. No middle ever was excluded from its quarters. At Brazenhead, the middle has thrived. “We need Brazenhead or something very much like it badly,” says Khakpour. “It's not optional at this point. Literary culture has become far too corporate -- Michael and Brazenhead are reminders of how and why to love books and authors.” In the months and years ahead, Seidenberg, Nikita, their dogs, plus the lion’s share of his books, will spend more time in a recently acquired farmhouse upstate along the water. Tick-checks promise to become a regular thing. Evenings are likely to consist of watching the river, inventorying the stir of colors along the surface. Says Seidenberg of sitting there (so contentedly) and watching the river flow, “I used to think it was only a metaphor.”
Laura is on the far left; Jenna is third from the right. I routinely refer to my childhood friend Jenna Le, now a physician, poet, and literary translator, as the smartest person I've ever known. Jenna and I were both friends and rivals on the Minnesota spelling bee circuit from 1995-98, when we were 11-14 years old. Eventually we both grew up to be writers, publishing our first books — her book of poems, Six Rivers, and my YA novel, Sister Mischief — within months of each other in 2011. Jenna's poems have also appeared in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications, she has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the PEN Emerging Writers Award, and she received her B.A. in math from Harvard and her M.D. from Columbia. Last Thursday night, in Washington, D.C., Arvind Mahankali, a 13-year-old boy from Bayside, Queens, beat 280 other contenders to win the 86th annual National Spelling Bee. The Bee is a multi-stage event that begins with classroom spell-offs in tens of thousands of elementary and junior high schools each winter, and culminates each May in a televised showdown in which contestants fidget and sweat and stammer their way toward a prize of $30,000 and national fame. On this occasion, Jenna and I mutually reflected on our bee experiences and found them to be deeply embroiled with race, class, gender, competition, achievement, and the American Dream. JL: Hi, Laura! Thanks so much for coming up with the idea of having this conversation about spelling bees: what they mean to us personally as former spelling bee competitors and what they have to do the larger questions of language, identity, race, gender, and (dare I say it?) the American dream. The first time my older sister Mina competed in a spelling bee, she was a fifth-grader, and I was a second-grader, sitting restlessly between my parents in the audience. It was the ’90s, and Mina and I were among a handful of nonwhite students enrolled in our ritzy suburban Minnesota elementary school. Flanked by my Vietnamese immigrant parents, I shuddered as hundreds of alien-sounding words winged over my head. “Lasagna”? A food that I, raised on rice- and fish-sauce-based dishes, had never tasted. “Yacht”? A type of boat I had never seen. To everyone’s surprise, my sister won that bee, and the next one, and the next. My parents’ nervousness quickly gave way to hard-bitten pride. Overnight, the winning of spelling bees became a key component of our family identity, the yacht we never had. My sister’s bee victories were a tangible family asset, something my mother could use as collateral when she marched off to parent-teacher conferences, determined to convince the skeptical teachers that an Asian immigrant family was as well worth betting on as a white one. My sister’s streak of bee triumphs culminated in a first-place finish at the 1995 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Beaming, she appeared on TV and in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Sporting enormous glasses and an equally humongous pink bow in her hair, her face smiled benignly from the front page of Asian American Press, a free newspaper distributed in local Asian supermarkets. At age 9, I was well aware that my parents had high hopes for me to carry on my sister’s bee-winning legacy. I resisted, though. Poring over blurrily Xeroxed lists of alphabetized words in my room all summer ignited a rankling impatience in my gut. I was a typical preadolescent, overflowing with messy emotions, and preparing for these emotionally dry and existentially meaningless contests struck me as a waste of time. I preferred to immerse myself in the dark world of Charlotte Bronte novels, reading those heartrendingly romantic dialogues again and again until my lacrimal glands spilled over. I preferred to bask in the colorful language of the movie reviews in the Star Tribune and imagine the faraway day when I would be the heroine of my own life. My first bee was a disaster: misspelling the word “maneuver,” I shuffled back to my seat in ignominy. The following year, I stumbled on “dilute.” The year after that, the word “flourishes” undid me. Mina, now 16, had just started applying to colleges. Watching her assemble her application, it began to dawn on me how high the stakes were. Spelling bee victories led to college acceptances, which in turn led to a new life, a life far removed from this cloistered suburban world where parents’ and teachers’ and peers’ approval meant everything. Bolstered by this secret knowledge, I rallied. The 1998 Minnesota State Spelling Bee. Only five competitors remain on stage, including me. I approach the microphone and listen for my assigned word: “nascence.” The word is new to me (it means “birth”). It is months before I will write my first poem and realize I was meant to be a poet. Years before I will discover the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. A decade before I will move to Manhattan and read Millay’s greatest poem, “Renascence,” for the first time. I fumble it. It’s a clear-cut defeat, but it’s also an escape, a leap into freedom, a birth. I am born, so that I can be reborn. LG: While there seems to have been, resultant of Mina’s success, an expectation that you would both participate in and succeed at bees, I remember my entrance to them as much less inevitable. At the beginning, in 5th grade, I remember being surprised to discover I was good at spelling. I wasn’t studying, but I kept winning — first the class, then the school, then I placed at the district level and went to regionals (where Mina thoroughly trounced me — that was the year she went to nationals). I was shocked to have made it that far. Unlike you, books were my only siblings, but like you, I loved Gothic novels; Jane Eyre, that lost and lonely only child, has saved my life once or twice. For me, the bees were entirely involved with my obsession with reading — I drilled on the word lists some, but halfheartedly, and I think whatever spelling talent I had was just derived from reading and reading and collecting all the new words I could find. As a combined result of books and bees, there’s a lot of words I knew how to define and spell without having any idea how to pronounce them, and in that way, I think the bees quite literally helped me to find my voice. For me, the bees represented a similar moment of feeling visible for the first time, which I wasn’t sure how to feel about then. When I went to the regional bee, my elementary school put a notice about it on the sign outside, and driving by it on my way to school every day was simultaneously the proudest and most embarrassed I’ve ever felt. My identity had suddenly been cast for me — Smart Girl — in a way that guaranteed my placement on an elite track that eventually led to a lot of good things, but that also guaranteed a social alienation that, accompanied by my glasses and braces and gangly exploding limbs, definitely threw me off for a number of years. There is so much in the connection you draw from bees to college that I relate to. This was a primary concern of my novel Sister Mischief — the exalting of college as the great escape, the destination where we could all suddenly, miraculously be free to be you and me, and the resultant positioning of achievement itself as escape. It reminds me of the root of the word “ecstasy,” the Greek ekstasis, which literally means to stand outside oneself. That was how I felt every time I spelled a word right — I got high off the absence of the bell. For a moment, I would stand outside myself in that moment of victory. Then, later, it was how I felt when I got into Columbia. When I published my first book. Winning is a drug; it’s how you learn to claw your way up, however you can. That said, to hear your first-generation perspective on the significance of the bees is fascinating to me, because for that reason alone the bees’ stakes were higher for you than for me, full stop. There’s just no arguing that point — to your family, to your establishment of identity, to your future, the bees carried an onus that I simply didn’t have to carry, and that feels important to acknowledge here. That’s a poignant thing to consider when you stand back and look at it — that in all my 12- and 13-year old ignorance, stressing about the next bee, I really had no idea both that the bees didn’t matter as much for me as they did for you, Mina, and every other first-generation kid, and that, due to my parents’ native English-speaking, I had a natural advantage in the lexicon of their competition. That feels like an allegory for how white and Asian kids integrate and relate to each other at large, and to extend it, I’d venture that the Asian American dominance of spelling bees is a dramatic mode of assimilation — a new way to claim the English language, a silver bullet for the college application, an article in the paper. The bee is an emblem of fluency, of literacy, and of tenacity. So I guess in all these ways, I see spelling bees as this deeply rich microcosm of what America’s stratified, unequal achievement culture is, and a barometer of where the melting pot is at — there’s a really naked kind of competition within bees, and one I find almost grotesquely synecdochic of the American Dream. Gatsby’s on the tips of everyone’s tongues right now, so I’ll ask you this way — do you think the bees are a green light at the end of the dock? Do you think they’re a false flash of promise, or one that panned out for you? Don’t you think you would have gotten into Harvard without them, or do you really think they affected your family’s path in the way they’ve tended to believe? Also, not to harp on the race point, Jenna, but I’d actually love to hear a little about how your parents came to Minnesota, and Edina specifically (the predominantly white, affluent, first-ring suburb of Minneapolis in which we both grew up, not coincidentally the home of the best public school system in the state). JL: First, thank you for bringing up the topic of etymologies! I grew up in the no-man’s-land between two languages, English (that kleptomaniac bastard child of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French) and Vietnamese (part of the Mon-Khmer language family). So I was always vaguely conscious that etymologies were something worth caring about. It was only when I started competing in the bees that etymologies became a life-or-death matter: being ignorant that “flourish” and “fluorine” have different roots and therefore different spellings caused me to flub my 1997 spelling bee chances, for example. Since then, etymologies are constantly on my mind, and they play a critical role in my present-day work as a poet. Maybe I should thank the spelling bees for that! “Achievement = escape”: what a neat way of phrasing the traditional conceptualization of the American dream. On their surface, the events that led to my parents settling in Edina, Minnesota, embody and ratify that traditional conceptualization. My parents were Vietnam War refugees: along with millions of others, they fled their country when North Vietnamese troops stormed the South Vietnamese stronghold of Saigon in 1975. My parents had one trait many refugees didn’t: they were college-educated. Not only that, they had marketable math and science skills. Because of this, my dad was offered a job in Minnesota. And because their experiences had reinforced their faith in the power of education, my parents chose to resettle in the suburb of Edina so that their children could be educated in Edina’s reputedly excellent public schools. This is a story I like telling because it’s the story of my family, but I sometimes need to remind myself that it’s the idiosyncratic story of one individual family, and it doesn’t speak to the experiences to many families that were not so lucky as mine: families of all races and ethnicities that are failed every day by the American dream. Being involved in spelling bees as a kid, I got to meet some kids from different backgrounds — kids who’d been subjected to poverty and flat-out racism and all kinds of travails that made them stronger — and that’s probably the most important thing I took away from the whole bee experience. And yet: writing my first poem when I was 13, going away to math camp when I was 15: those events shaped my life’s trajectory more profoundly than the bees did. I guess I’m more of a Nick Carraway than a Jay Gatsby? I guess you and I both are, being Minnesotans. I’d love to hear more about how you personally experienced the bees, Laura. We were both born and raised in Edina, but I didn’t really meet you until 10th-grade gym class. I remember seeing this super-tall girl walking around the locker rooms and thinking, “Hey, isn’t that the girl I was always running into in the spelling bees?” LG: It’s endlessly intriguing to me how two people can remember the same experiences so differently. I’d remembered and kept an eye on you ever since the bees, so your reappearance in high school wasn’t a surprise for me. The way I remember you from high school, after the bees, is a mixture of awe and envy — I could have killed you in AP English for all the 99s you scored on those blue books. I wanted to be the best one in that class so badly, and that role was stalwartly occupied by you. But I could never really be mad about that, because you deserved it, and because I liked and respected — like and respect — you too much. There it is again, that unique blend of competition and camaraderie. I’m developing an overarching theory that women should be less apologetic about their competitive impulses — if we can keep those impulses away from bitterness and destruction, they’re tremendous motivators. Which is to say: it’s always been my privilege even to bat in your league. You keep me striving. I have a vivid memory I wanted to share with you — when I got knocked out of the regional competition that Mina won (we were in 5th grade, she in 8th, I think I placed 5th or 6th in that bee), I was completely distraught and burst into tears — again, the intense emotionality, the sheer adrenaline of that silent moment before the judge beeped your answer wrong, or said “That is correct.” The word was “gubernatorial,” which I stupidly spelled with a “gouber”; I’d never found it in any of my books before and was completely stumped. Anyway, as I made my way into the audience, your parents came up and comforted and complimented me, and it meant the world to me — I had been so in awe of you and Mina, and at that point we’d all seen each other at so many bees, and that moment made me feel like there was some weird and lovely niche community of us, the awkward clever spellers and the people who produced us, that we were competing against each other but also in it together. It’s also worth noting that after 5th grade, I had two years of losing bees before I had another winning year, and I was absolutely mortified by losing. With each year I lost, the stakes for winning the next year were raised. We competed at the same state bee in 8th grade, didn’t we? I think I placed 11th that year you placed 5th, and I remember crying harder after that knocking-out than any other one. Once I recovered, I was proud of how I’d placed, but the way it felt when the bottom fell out of that adrenaline surge, and realizing the bees were all over for me — it was painful. Okay, HOW is it POSSIBLE that we have not brought gender into this yet?! Honestly — I don’t even remember the boys from bees. I only remember noticing the other girls. Did you feel particularly pitted against other girls in the swath of competitors, or what was the gendered aspect of this experience for you? Also, do you feel like there were actually more girls in competition, or is this totally a distortion of my addled memory? (Note: Jenna has ascertained that the competitors in the 2013 Scripps Howard national spelling bee are 52% female and 48% male.) JL: Well, first, I want to address your theory about competitiveness. I think you’re absolutely correct that spelling bees ultimately amount to a distillation of the idea of competitiveness in its purest (and therefore, from a certain perspective, its silliest) form. Competitiveness in America has such a tangled history. On the one hand, the theory of capitalism, which shaped 20th-century history so profoundly in both my parents’ native Asia and the western world, argues that competitiveness is a force for good. Many of the social phenomena around us, things we take for granted, like the U.S. News and World Report prestige rankings of colleges, have this assumption at their root. And yet, we both know competitiveness can sometimes be destructive: the pain of losing spelling bees taught us so. In my life, I’ve been involved in quite a few subcultures that are lopsided, gender-wise. The “mathlete” subculture, which more or less consumed my life between the ages of 13 and 21 (I was an undergrad math major before heading to med school), was heavily male-dominated, for instance. In contrast, the gender breakdown of the spelling bees was roughly 50:50, as I recall it. But I’ve noticed that Minnesota women speak with a loudness and confidence virtually unique to their kind, and I wonder if this contributed to your impression that Minnesota females had a more salient presence at the bees than their male counterparts. LG: I, too, have often found myself the woman in a man’s world, and never more than working in film. (Sidebar: Especially as, like you, the daughter of a woman in science, I’ve always felt as though I somehow betrayed feminism by not being better at math and science. I was good, maybe even better than I thought I was, but I had to TRY, and I didn’t much like that.) I like your analysis of the gender breakdown in the bees, and feel conspicuously identified by your characterization of Minnesota women here. I think that loud confidence you name is embroiled with that singularly Midwestern friendliness that Minnesota is known for — my mother and I both pride ourselves, derivatively of this quality, on being able to talk to anyone. Minnesota women are loud, confident, and most of all, chatty. I’ve never shaken that quality, and it confused the hell out of people when I first moved to New York — the hostile looks I would get as I instinctively made small talk in elevators! I was so oblivious, so naive, but I find that quality to be an asset now — it really disarms the coastal folk. Since you’ve detailed your family’s role in all this so beautifully, perhaps my own ought to find some relevance here. My mother’s path was very similar to my own in many ways — she grew up in Fargo, even more a place that no one leaves than Minneapolis, and she was a bee kid too. I don’t remember exactly how she placed — somehow I remember she didn’t do quite as well as I eventually did — but she described it to me as a formative experience, and took a lot of pride in my replicating it. Her Midwestern experience was one of getting out by working her way up, too, and her departure from Fargo to Wellesley College, where she became part of that hallowed Seven Sisters 1960s generation that included Madeleine Albright, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Nora Ephron, was the first time she’d ever traveled by plane. So that paradigm was pret-a-porter for me, that way in which the Midwest becomes a kind of farm league that you swing your way out of if you’ve got the chops, and the bees had already been reified as a key part of it. That American Dream aspect, again. There’s a passage in Gatsby that always makes me choke up a little in its resonance, that I think describes the immigrant experience so truly. When I say “immigrant” here, I mean it in a regional, class-based, and cultural way, too — not just geographical migration itself, but also class mobility. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all — Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life. That’s who I am and who I always will be — subtly unadaptable to anywhere but that cold place where people chat so warmly. You can swing your way out of the farm leagues, so to speak, but you can’t actually acquire native understanding of anywhere but the place you knew as a child. So looking back, I think the bees were the beginning of something rich and wild and wonderful for me, but also something bittersweet — the idea that through talent, you can ascend to someplace where you can live for years but will never truly belong. That’s an allegory for both your family and mine, and for both you and me. JL: So true. My whole life, I’ve been drawn to quotations like Theodor Adorno’s “It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home” and Ezra Pound’s “What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.” The idea that one can and should dissociate oneself from one’s native turf, coupled with the related idea that the voluntary servitude of love can be an adequate replacement for the knotty bonds of heredity: my poems often flirt with these ideas, these attractive, seductive, quintessentially American ideas. It’s a strong undercurrent in my book, Six Rivers, as well as in the new poems I’m working on now. In the end, however, we can’t escape that harsh truth: we will never fully belong. Our discussion of female moxie reminds me of a word I think I first encountered in a spelling bee, a word that is virtually obsolete now: “adventuress.” This word, as I’m sure you already know, was once used to label social climbers — female social climbers, in particular. Think about the implications: not so long ago, women like our mothers who tried to improve their social station, women who surged forward to claim their share of the American dream, were slapped with this derogatory label. Isn’t that staggering? And isn’t it a fine thing that spelling bees preserve our country’s social history by never letting us forget that words like this were once in common usage? By the way, if you haven’t yet, you need to watch the 2002 documentary Spellbound, which profiles eight kids who competed in the 1999 national spelling bee. It’s hilarious: one of the kids who attended the summer math camp I worked at in college (Harry A.) features prominently in it, and he’s a great comedic talent. There’s a somber side to it, too: I recently read an article that investigates what those eight kids are up to now, and it said one of them later struggled with a teen pregnancy while another died in his 20s. LG: OMG of course I’ve seen Spellbound, have we not ever talked about that film? That would be remarkable. My college friends made me go see it in theaters with them and sat next to me the whole time snickering, “DORK. D-O-R-K,” and then later that night — I think it was that night — we ended up at a gay piano bar in the Village and heard a very rotund tenor with the most heartbreakingly beautiful Broadway voice sing Radiohead’s “Exit Music (for a film).” It was one of those nights. I looked up the article you mentioned and it made me very much want to go back and watch the film again. It’s probably one of my favorite docs of all time. What that movie captures that I love, and that we’re noting here, is the way the bees built a kind of community and haven for all of us terribly awkward smart kids, the way it allowed us to find others like us. It’s a competitive community, but as in any gathering of outcasts, a deeply bonded one, too. JL: Yes, exactly. I love that entire genre of documentaries, by the way; I was also riveted by the documentaries about the national Scrabble championship (Word Wars) and the national crossword puzzle championship (Wordplay). I considered watching the one about the Tetris nationals, but decided I had to draw the line somewhere.
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My inner dramatist will have a debut outing at Sweet: Actors Reading Writers, Thurs. 12/2 at 7:30 pm, Three of Cups (First Ave at 5th Street, NYC). Actor Tonya Edmonds will perform an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, Sebastian & Frederick. Other featured writers: Ed Park, Amanda Filipacchi, Jonathan Dixon, Maya Pindyck.
On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace's work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it's an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption. Or it's a chilling precursor to Wallace's suicide. On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life. He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience. These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear. The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace's complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine's best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace's suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address. I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning? I was curious whether Wallace's speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend. This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about. "The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see," Wallace said in a slow, even voice. I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace's speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd. To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005's Facebook page. "I'm a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I'm wondering if you'd be willing to answer a few short questions," I said in my introductory email. After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people. I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them. What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker? Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him. We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know. We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class. So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech. Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker. Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was "huh, this could be interesting." What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech? Mike L.: The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn't say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable. Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing. He was a little disheveled and didn't stand up straight when he spoke. He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us. Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn't in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy -- it seemed like in a way he just didn't care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn't do anything without first thinking about it. What was your reaction immediately after the speech? Was it clear you'd heard a better than average commencement address? Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs. No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I'm ____'s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn't that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story. Megan H.: I don't remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon. It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special. Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was "Holy crap that was awesome." But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I've ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life. The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored. Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace's other works? Mike L.: There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation. We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time. Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don't know the context of other people's lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I'm annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don't know well or at all. Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don't plan on ever giving it up. I know it's in book form, but that's not the same. Mine is "original" and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.
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My Shakespeare intake is up sharply this season. So far, I've attended about one performance every six weeks. Two comedies (a .333 average), three tragedies (.500), and even one romance (.167). My mother, a high school English teacher, must be pleased with the numbers I've been putting up. And I'm prepared to testify before any grand jury that will have me that the only performance-enhancing drugs I've touched have been brewed from the choicest hops and barley.Here in New York, it's possible to indulge in Bardolatry whenever you want. At least two Shakespeare productions are running on any given night. And of course, the plays are meant to be seen, rather than read. Or so say the experts. This week's Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream left me wondering, though... are they right?Having read AMND thrice and having seen four previous stage productions, I was surprised at how many great speeches I'd managed to forget. "The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact," Duke Theseus theorizes. "Be as thou wast wont to be," Oberon tells a sleeping Titania, on the verge of reconciliation. "See as thou wast wont to see." On a more Global level, though, the Shakespeare-in-the-Park production was a mess - part Broadway razzle-dazzle, part Three Stooges routine, part Ibsen. Rather than mining the subterranean connections between the play's disparate tones and textures, director Daniel Sullivan seemed hellbent on obliterating them.Yes, it was free, on a beautiful night in the Park, and yes, there is fun to be had picking holes in any performance. But the contrast between this Dream and Michael Grief's Romeo and Juliet (this summer's other Shakespeare-in-the-Park offering) suggested a crucial lesson for any director of Shakespeare: one must surrender to the imperatives of the material, rather than trying to bend it to one's will. Such a surrender does not slough off the burden of interpretation; indeed, it requires it. But Grief's decisions about the nature of love and lust, the relative costs of innocence and experience, and the place of the individual in society, flowed from Shakespearean preoccupations; whereas the current production lacks a point-of-view on love, on imagination, or on anything at all. Sullivan's rope tricks and glowsticks threaten not just to jazz up but to gloss over A Midsummer Night's Dream.Grappling with the big questions Shakespeare wrestled into blank verse can yield a refreshlingly classicist take on a play, like Grief's, or something as riotously new as the Wooster Group Hamlet. In the case of slightly weaker source material, such as The Taming of the Shrew, strong direction may produce something in between, like Propeller's excellent staging at the Brooklyn Academy of Music... while commenting on our own times.When a director aims to displace the Bard's magic with its own, however, I'd just as soon save my money, drag out my brokeback Riverside Shakespeare, and stage a play in the round of my own mind. Which doesn't mean I'd ever pass up tickets to any live performance... provided someone else is buying.